One yoga teacher weighs in on why you should bring up the challenges we’re all facing out in the world—think wildfires, news of sexual misconduct, political unrest, the list goes on—in your yoga classes.
As I write this, a cloud of thick smoke hangs heavy over the city of San Francisco due to recent fires. The sky is tinted an apocalyptic pink and the normally bustling streets have just a few bold souls hurrying along to the next shelter, air masks covering half their face.
Schools and many businesses are closed due to toxic air quality and as I sit here preparing for this morning’s class, I am not only planning my sequence, but how I will—or won’t—bring up what’s happening outside. Do I address it head on? Do I speak about it generally? Do I avoid talking about it altogether?
In our yoga community, negativity can be seen as, well, negative. Yoga teachers often avoid talking about the awful things happening globally in favor of encouraging students to focus on their own personal healing. Yoga class, retreats, studios, and meditation halls have become refuges from outer violence and uncertainty—a vacuum in which everything feels safe and alright. But things are not safe and alright. The country is divided. Planet earth is bleeding fires and crying floods. Just a few weeks ago, a shooter entered a yoga studio and killed two people.
As the world is changing, the teaching landscape is changing, too.
Yogis are looking to their practice and teachers for guidance and while I whole-heartedly agree that our classes should be safe-havens from the madness of the outside world, I have also grown to believe that these are the best places to learn how to handle that madness. Our classes are fertile training ground for showing students how strong they are and how strong we are as a community. How do we help people heal both personally and globally in challenging times?
I believe yoga teachers can use the outside world as teachable moments, without having to address specific traumas or political upset head on. Here are 8 ways to do just that:
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Speak globally, versus specifically.
It is possible to help students face struggles without going too deep into personal traumas. Use general words and speak to the internal effects versus the external turmoil. While the outside causes may vary, human responses are similar. We have all experienced sadness, hopelessness, anger, grief, and frustration, just as we have all experienced happiness, joy, elation, and surprise.
Los Angeles-based yoga teacher Nikki Estrada told me she steers clear of specific comments in classes that could potentially be polarizing and instead, addresses our challenging times more generally. “I’ll say things like, ‘We are so bombarded right now with all kinds of negativity and intensity and the yoga studio is a space to turn it off, go within, and fill our cups,’” she says. Using the words “negativity” and “intensity” versus a specific example allows students to interpret as it pertains to them, she says. “It is a delicate dance to acknowledge the collective challenge, but not dwell on it.”
Emphasize the power of healing as a group.
People learn by example, and group responses can be contagious. Think of the concepts of “mass hysteria or “group think.” Just as complaining together can heighten a group’s annoyance, breathing together can also calm the group down.
“If something is going on that is affecting virtually everyone in your room—meaning not just certain political or religious persuasions—and you are authentically feeling it yourself, it may be nice to set the tone gently as the students come in, creating space for their feelings and need for connection,” says Annie Carpenter, founder of SmartFLOW yoga. For example, on the morning of 9/11, Annie had her students make a circle, facing in so they could really sense the connection and support of community.
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When in doubt, teach breathing.
We may have different viewpoints, different politics, and different bodies, but something that connects every single human being on this planet is the breath. “The best way to help your student is to help them breathe deeper,” says Jeanne Heileman, founder of Tantra Flow Yoga. “Breath is the link from the physical body to the mind. When we change the way we breathe, we change the way our mind is activating. Thus, you don’t have to say anything.”
Estrada agrees: “The most powerful tool I share with my students during challenging times is to focus on and regulate their breath,” she says. “Steady breathing leads to a steady mind and a steady yogi.”
Use asana to teach students about how they cope with challenge.
How we do one thing is how we do everything—and looking at how we approach challenge on the mat is a mirror for how we deal with it off the mat. For example, balance poses are a great place for people to face fear together without triggering specific experiences. Think about Tree Pose (Vrksasana). Standing on one leg has little to do with the lessons we are imparting, but it can show students how they respond when they’re scared. When the class explores this type of edge as a group, people are likely to tap into the kind of courage they’re seeking during hard times.
Yoga teacher Jeanne Heileman designed her entire 300-hour teacher training around this concept. “During times of fear and insecurity, teach postures connected to the Root Chakra,” she says. “These include long holds in Standing Poses. Guide your students to connect to the earth, and to feel how it is holding and supporting them.”
See also Elemental Yoga: An Earthy Sequence to Ground Vata
Empower students by showing them what they can change: their thoughts.
Practicing in an uncomfortable setting is the best place to learn resilience. To wit: The recent California fires provided a real-time opportunity for students to learn that while they may not be able to change their external circumstances, they can change their reaction to them. Helpless despair, enraged frustration, and acceptance are all choices—our choices. We can manage our experience through the power of our response. When our response is something harder to contain, like inconsolable grief, we can still change how we think about ourselves, practicing being kinder and more patient.
Political unrest, bombings, shootings, fires, and abuse are tremendously upsetting events. Other than trauma-specialists and therapists, many yoga teachers are not trained to help our students unpack that kind of trauma. How we can help is by holding space. By doing this, we’re not trying to fix or understand another’s trauma; we’re simply being present with someone and their pain.
Carpenter, who taught during the recent Northern California fires, says she held space in her classes by leading long, slow, flows that encouraged students to move more mindfully and hold poses longer, using lots of props for support. She also finished these classes with supported Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani) and Reclined Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana). “I traded some of the specificity I usually use in my instructions for words that encouraged grounding and support,” she says. “There was also more silence, and more gentle hands-on adjustments.”
See also 5 Ways to Create a Safe Yoga Space for Trauma Survivors
Help your students see how they are more similar than they are different.
Another powerful way to help people heal as a collective is how we begin and close our classes. Beginning and/or ending class by chanting Om is a way to link people together. Om is the omnipresent universal sound—the buzz of the world around us, the singing of the planets from space, the whoosh of the waves crashing against the shore, the breath of your neighbor. By repeating Om, we connect into this greater experience, harmonizing with the whole planet.
Encourage your students to share the benefits of their practice with the world.
While yoga may be an inside job, it has great external reverberations. The better we feel, the kinder we are. And that goodness pays itself forward. “The more we change on the inside, the more we have a positive impact on the outside,” says Estrada.
Carpenter often ends her classes by inviting students to offer the “goodness” of their practice back out into the world, closing with the words: “May we be grateful for the many blessings in our lives. And may all the blessings we receive be of benefit to all beings everywhere.”
As wellness professionals, we have the important task of grooming a spiritual army—to prepare people for the battle of uncertainty that is life. If we get caught up in the “me” of the healing, we risk losing sight of the “we.” And we heal most together.
See also Yoga Wisdom: How to Spark Your Inner Light + Share It with Others
About the Author
Sarah Ezrin is a yoga teacher in Los Angeles. Learn more at sarahezrinyoga.com.
8 Times Presidents Sounded Like Yogis
B.K.S Iyengar or J.F.K? Yogic wisdom can inspire a class – and a country.
Being a yogi requires patience, perseverance, and passion. So does running a country. This Presidents Day, reflect on these 8 quotes from past Presidents that encourage people to challenge themselves.
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9 Healthiest (and Trendiest) Places Every NYC Yogi Loves
Don’t miss one (or more!) of these healthy hot spots the next time you’re in the big apple.
Looking to make your next trip to New York City a health- and wellness-focused getaway? Good news: There is no shortage of yoga studios, vegan food options, non-toxic beauty spots, and more to check out in the big apple. If you’re planning a sometime soon, here’s a list of the trendiest spots every NYC-based yogi loves.
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7 Simple Ways to Be Your Own Valentine Today—and Any Day
When was the last time you treated yourself as well as you treat everyone else?
I used to have a vision board in my living room with the words in huge letters emblazoned across the top: “All of me loves all of you.” This was a non-negotiable in calling in my forever partner. The problem was thatI did not yet love all of me, and as I learned through the years of many Mr. Wrongs, we only attract people who love us as much as we love our selves.
For a long time, I was searching for someone(thing) to complete me, when what I really needed was to learn how to be whole on my own. I am now married to the man of my dreams. (Scratch that, I could not have dreamt him up, because I did not yet know that I deserved to be loved as much as he loves me.) It took a lifetime of personal work and self-love practices to finally understand that a good partner does not complete us—they complement us.
You see, the real love story of our lives is the one we have with our selves.
See also 5 Poses to Inspire More Self-Love, Less Self Smack-Talk
So, how do we remember this when every store and advertisement is blasting the messaging that Valentine’s Day is a holiday for couples? By letting this holiday be a celebration of love. Love of others and love for ourselves.
Some people have deemed V-day Singles Awareness Day, which is a great way to take the day back. It is also helpful to do a little digging into history of the holiday. As it turns out, while we have all heard of St. Valentine, for whom the holiday is named, there may have in fact been multiple St. Valentines, and each has a different day of celebration. Translation: While society chooses to honor February 14th as Valentine’s Day, there are numerous other dates in the calendar that could count. What does this mean for us? The date is arbitrary. Everyday can, and should, be a day of love.
So, here’s an idea: How about this Valentine’s Day, you be your own valentine. Give yourself a hug. Hold your own hand. And if that sounds weird, you should be doing these things every single day. Self-love is not selfish or indulgent. When we love ourselves, we are more loving in the world. The kinder we are, the kinder those are around us can be.
Our yoga practice reminds us that we are already perfect exactly was we are and when we can embrace every aspect of our selves, others can, too. Here are some ideas for the perfect self-care day to celebrate self-love this Valentine’s Day, and every day.
See also 5 Poses to Help You Stand in Your Own Power
Look yourself lovingly in the eyes. Mirror affirmations are positive statements spoken aloud while looking into one’s reflection. They are a powerful way to change your view of yourself. You receive messaging all day long, whether you are conscious of it or not. Every time a bus passes or an ad plays on TV or you scroll through your social media feeds, you are receiving information. Most of that information comes with the messaging that you are not enough. Hear/read/see this enough and you start to believe it. Positive affirmations rewire your brain. Studies are now showing that this work improves self-esteem and strengthens your ability to combat negative stimuli, such as stress or others’ negativity. My favorite statement comes from the Queen of positive quotes, Louise Hay: “I am worth loving. There is love all around me.”
Go to the water. Water is the element of emotions and feelings—and the strongest and most powerful feeling is love. On this day, it is therapeutic to use the element of water to immerse yourself in love. If you live near the sea or a lake, go to the shore. If you are near a river, find a place along the edge. If you have access to a pool, dive in. If you are unable to get to any of these bodies of water, take a long soak in a bath. Soaking in water is a way to cultivate union with the deeper parts of our selves and with the world around us. When we are sad, we cry. When we exercise hard, we sweat. When we laugh, we tear. Allow the water to wash love all over you.
See also Recognize Your Strength with this 10-Minute Guided Meditation
Take yourself to a yoga class. Yoga is a unique activity in that it can be practiced in a group, but it is also an individualized experience. When you are feeling lonely or in need of connection, going to class is a wonderful way to feel a part of something—even when you’re flying solo. Moving as a collective and being in something together automatically cultivates a feeling of unity. I travel the world alone a lot and generally do home practices. When I am in need of company or craving connection, I go to a public yoga class—even if I do not speak the native language. There is something about breathing and sweating as a collective that reminds us that we are all connected, no matter how alone we sometimes feel.
Get a massage. The benefits of massage are numerous, from reducing stress and anxiety to improving sleep, digestion, and immunity. Often the resistance to getting one is financial, but there is no need to go to a fancy spa to get a good massage. Sometimes a $10 foot massage at your local nail salon can be just as impactful. Treating yourself to something nice also sends a deeper message of being cared for to your unconscious. You are your own caretaker. Just as acts of kindness from strangers can change your day, being kind to yourself can have an enormous impact as well.
Buy yourself flowers. When I was 17 years old, my sister bought me my first plant. She said it was going to teach me how to take care of myself. Soon after she gave it to me, I accidentally knocked it out the window of my 3floor dorm room. How is that for symbolic? I felt terrible, but a desire was ignited in me to take better care of my things and myself. Unfortunately, I do not have the best green thumb. I tried having plants in my apartment, but they would always die. I even tried fake plants. After a very hard breakup years later, I wanted to do something nice for myself, so I started buying myself fresh flowers every week. Having living organisms in your home ushers in prana, or energy. You can feel the life force emanating around you.
See also 5 Simple Ways to Fall Back in Love with Your Yoga Practice
Take yourself to the movies. There is nothing I love more than going to the movies by myself. No arguing over what film to see. No one asking questions or chewing loudly next to you, making it hard to hear. And you get to eat allthe popcorn! While it takes courage at first to do things by yourself, it also teaches you how to be comfortable in your own skin. The more content you are on your own, the less likely you’ll be to seek validation from others. It is easy to be swayed by a group. To worry about other’s opinions and to lose sight of our true desires. Without other people around, you learn to hone your own our choices and opinions.
Order in and don’t forget the dessert. Cap your day off by ordering in from your favorite restaurant. Eating alone is a great opportunity to practice mindful eating. When you’re not distracted by company or devices, you can be much more present with the taste of your food. You’re more likely to eat more slowly and chew every morsel more thoroughly when you’re not speaking. It is also nice to journal when dining alone. The temptation will be to reach for your phone and distract yourself with social media or texting friends. Try not to do that. Instead, relish the time to connect more deeply to yourself. Ponder questions like, “What am I grateful for?” or “If I could do anything, what would I do?” Give yourself a compliment by answering the question, “What do I love most about myself?” Just don’t forget the dessert!
See also These Photos of Famous Yogis will Inspire You to Find Your Light
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